Nowadays, much attention is paid to the consideration of various military conflicts from the perspective of international relations theories. Such analysis enables to reveal the causation of the conflict, predict the action sequence of the involved member states, and develop the resolution. The current paper will provide the consideration of the Syrian Civil War that is remained unresolved to this day. It will investigate the research question of how the balance of power theory can explain the escalation of the conflict in Syria.
The question is based on the precise analysis of the existing theoretical researches. The major emphasis will be made not on the analysis of the causations of the Syrian Civil War but on intentions, behaviors, and actions of the dominant powers and third actors. This issue will be discussed from the standpoint of realistic conceptual framework which provides better explanations of actions and stimuli of the involved actors than constructivist and neo-Marxist theoretical frameworks do. The final part of the paper will introduce the same prominent case in the world history that reflects the idea that desire of modern states to balance the power results in the escalation of military conflicts. The precise analysis of the actions of various countries in the Syrian Civil War will provide the clear understanding that the escalation of the conflict may be explained by the balance of power theory.
Realist theoretical framework that will be used for the argumentation of the statement serves as the major explanation of the conflict escalation in Syrian Civil War. According to this theory of international relations, the political constraints are originated in human egoism and “the absence of international government (anarchy).” Therefore, the world politics is guided by power and security of states. Notably, those nations can struggle of power even in the absence of evident aggressive behavior from other countries. The power and the related aspects such as economic independence and military technologies and capabilities can be referred to the material factors. They will be discussed because contrary to ideological factors such as culture, ideology, and norms, they are more stable and less prone to the unpredictable fluctuations of states’ perceptions.
Any significant conflict can be viewed as intention to countervail the distribution of political powers in the world. This statement is supported by Waltz who states that anarchy results in the balance on world political arena instead of breakdown. The countries do not stand in support to some particular party of the conflict because they may suffer from strengthening the state in future. The creation of great powers is rather dangerous in modern world, as it can be “a threat when there is no government to turn for the protection.” This notion explains the phenomenon of multipolarity of the contemporary world, namely the structure of international order with at least three dominant actors.
The concept of multipolarity is applicable for the explanation of the discussed issue because the Syrian Civil War serves as the reflection of the multipolar order. Notably, this conflict has the crucial importance for the distribution of powers in the world. Syria is considered the peripheral state that itself does not have the enormous political power in the world context. However, the behavior of involved parties and action sequence can influence the human history significantly because “in multi-polar systems…a change in the periphery … may have a noticeable impact on the general balance.” Moreover, multipolar world can be characterized by greater likelihood of occurrence and escalation of war conflicts than bipolar one as powerful actors have more conflicting situations, higher possibility of formation of imbalance, including the formation of coalitions, and increased possibility of miscalculation. The motives of states’ actions in the international arena can be explained by minimum desire to preserve and maximum desire to obtain the universal dominance. In all circumstances, countries struggle for increasing of their political power among other states, improvement of wealth, advantage, and flourishing.
In aforementioned theory, the likelihood of war can be explained by defensive and offensive realism. Offensive realism assumes that states develop and realize incentives for expansion only under certain circumstances. According to the defensive realism, such incentives are performed perennially as their development and realization do not require any specific conditions. This research will consider the discussed topic from the standpoint of defensive realism since the states will be constantly struggling for enriching their power. They need to secure themselves from the threat of more powerful states and increase their ability to successful aggressive behavior for further power rise. The greater the state – the more power it seeks to obtain for better securing itself. The preservation of status quo for a long time is inacceptable by states because of the existing uncertainty about others’ intentions. It results in the maximization of military power for the increasing of ability to survive. Realist theoretical framework is considered beneficial for the discussion of a chosen topic because it enables to understand the Syrian Conflict by analysis of other military conflicts occurring before. This idea is based on the assumption of realism such as repetition that can be explained in the following way: “the texture of international politics remains highly constant, patterns recur, and events repeat themselves endlessly.”
Contrary to realist theoretical framework, constructivism stresses on the existence of structural characteristics in the systems of shared ideas and beliefs. It states that “material resources only acquire meaning for human action through the structure of shared knowledge in which they are embedded.” Thus, a peaceful coexistence of states is possible if they have shared ideas of identity, ideology, and friendship. Constructivist framework makes emphasis on the importance of aligning identities because it forms the background for the states’ behaviors and actions. As opposed to rationalists who assume that the states are egoists, constructivists treat countries as social actors who have similar identities and norms. This theoretical framework cannot completely understand the behavior of actors which are involved into the discussed military conflict as these states have different cultural background and violate the established international norms and regulations. For example, the government of Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapon and killed numerous civilians. This step violates the great number of treaties which were developed since 1925 (Poison Gas Protocol, Chemical Weapons Convention, etc.).
According to constructivism, the BoP concept is incorporated in the balance of threat theory. It means that nations may improve their military armament or coordinate their security initiatives for addressing massive military practices from other states. The extent of potential threat produced by the state depends on factors such as “aggregate power, geographic proximity, offensive capability, and the perceived aggressiveness of intensions.” This theory does not explain the reason for the states located far away from Western Asia to have deep concerns and perform military interventions into the development of the Syrian Civil War. Moreover, constructivists cannot provide a clear explanation why similarly located states behave differently to the conflict. These explanations form the background for the understanding that constructivism and the balance to threat theory cannot be applied for the discussion of the chosen topic.
Neo-Marxist conceptual framework makes the emphasis on the material background of the states’ behaviors and relationships. From its perspective, the enormous power of countries is rooted in the unequal distribution of capital. Military conflicts and use of force arise because of the “insufficient domestic demand” and search for outlets abroad. Moreover, military power is applied for suppression of the uprising peripheral states which stand on their way to liberty. However, it strains credulity that pre-war Syria could be considered as the enormous threat to dominant states such as the USA and the Russian Federation. Therefore, this conceptual framework was not chosen for the consideration of the stated topic.
Analysis of the Evidence Concerning Syrian Civil War
Synopsis of the Conflict
The conflict occurred in the southern province of Syria, namely in Dar’a, in March 2011. The youth as well as the armed elements in the crowd proclaimed the necessity for political and economic reforms and removal of the Assad regime. They were met by the armored response from the security guard of the Assad government who killed and arrested numerous individuals, which resulted in further triggering of the conflict. The opposition to the actions of the Assad government was formed in the political group under the name the Syrian National Council (SNC), which later became the integral part of the National Opposition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC), and military group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
This conflict created the threat to the existing alignment of world forced and could not be missed by the dominant world powers. American government under the ruling of the President Obama asked Syrian President Assad to step aside from the conflict. At the same time, Al Qaeda’s forces in Iraq set the mission to some of its representatives to start the military operations in Syria under the name of Jabhat al Nursa (the Nursa Front). Those actions reflected clear intentions of American government to hold peace in the region and existing alignment of political forces that is the balance of powers in the world for that moment.
Other powerful forces made attempts to influence the course of the Syrian conflict to ensure the holding of the existing balance of power. The states who were interested in the escalation of the conflict and re-distribution of influence in the world created barriers to those attempts. Moreover, the UN Security Council could not stand on the sidelines from the military actions in Syria which resulted in numerous deaths and arrests of civilians. It has strongly condemned Syrian authorities who used military force against protesters who proclaimed democratic values in the form of special resolution. However, the Russian Federation and China imposed a veto over the draft of the resolution in October 4, 2011. The imposition of veto against condemnation of military actions and blockage of the UN Security Council can be considered as some kind of response on Russian concerns about relocation of powers in the region, “U.S. and other third party security assistance to Syrian opposition groups, and the potential for broader U.S.-led coalition military operations in Syria.” In such a manner, Russia intends to secure its safety and ensure the holding of its position in the region. Keeping of Assad’s regime guaranteed the unchangeable status of lands under Russian control in the region, namely the Caucasian republics. Russia has formed the unspoken coalition with China for overstanding the joined initiatives of the USA and UN. It reflects one of the major characteristics of the multipolarity that is the possibility of the escalation of the conflict by joining in coalitions for addressing the threat of other powerful states’ influence.
The intent of the dominant powers to hold the existing balance of powers and failure to realize it due to the fact that the modern world is multipolar instead of bipolar can be viewed on events happening in the second half of 2011 and 2012. They are characterized by the enormous sharpening of the situation, raise of military confrontations in different parts of the country, and increase of their violence. In August 2012, President Obama declared American concerns about starting use of chemical weapon. Russia and the USA made efforts for peaceful resolution of the conflict by establishment of a transitional government according to the Geneva Communique. According to this document, the role of the government of Assad remained to be unclear in the Syrian future. The official declaration of concerns can be seen as the announcement of the threat of security to various states, including the USA. At the same time, intents for peaceful resolution could be considered as the desire of dominant political powers to hold the existing distribution of forces. Notably, they did not take into the consideration the positions of third parties involved in the conflict. The further escalation of the situation proved that the resolution of the Syrian Civil War depends not only on American and Russian intents but also on the coverage of interests of other involved actors. This fact supports the idea that in addition to powerful states such as the USA and Russia there are other parties, which affect the action sequent in the Syrian Civil War. It means that the modern world is multipolar rather than bipolar.
Two major concepts of the balance of power theory, namely desire to secure itself and increase the power, reflected in the actions of non-dominant state could be observed in June, 2012. At that time, the government of Turkey made an official announcement to hold its military forces near its Syrian border. In October of the same year, the mutual ban that resulted in the destroying of Aleppo, the area nearby Syrian-Turkish boarders, has been performed between the Turkish and Skirmish military forces. The actions of Turkish government present its intents to protect the country’s borders. Furthermore, the additional attention should be paid to the growing role of this country in local and international area. Previously being dependent on the USA, the state is currently “seeking to reduce dependency on external patrons” and “openly challenging the dominant powers on regional issues.” It results in enhancement of complexity of the conflict. At the same time, such a diversification creates the regional balance of powers among more than two states, namely Russia and the USA, and lowers threat from their side.
The Syrian Civil War could have the enormous influence on the re-distribution of powers in the world. Therefore, it could not be missed not only by dominant states but also by other countries which could improve their security and power in the course of the war. Their active intervention and support of opposing sides caused the raise of the military activity and the further escalation of the conflict. Political and military events of 2013 could be characterized by the tremendous raise of the Assad government’s support by Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah and increase of assistance of the USA, Turkey, the UK, France, and Arab Gulf States to the Syrian opposition. All the parties preserved their interests of security, the balance of powers, and improvement of their influence. For instance, Hezbollah rendered the support to Assad regime for the prevention “the Syrian regime to achieve military and diplomatic victories” which would cause the further increasing of threat of Syria’s powerful influence on the Israel policy. At the same time, long-lasting and sharp military conflict in Syria was beneficial for Iran because “the 2003 US invasion in Iraq and its premature troop withdrawal in 2011 removed a major rival and allowed Teheran to implant its influence across the border.”
The dominant powers can join their efforts for more effective addressing of the common threat. However, they proceed their struggle for the distribution of powers and assurance of the security of their interests. During this time period, military conflicts on Syrian territory became more active and sharp and involved more complicated military technique and weapons, including the chemical one. Notably, both Russia and the USA proclaimed stoppage of chemical weapon use. The proxy war character of Syrian military conflict became more evident. Military forces of dominant powers in the world started opening battles against each other, namely “Russia negotiated an agreement for the Syrian government to dispose of its CW stockpiles and destroy associated facilities in exchange for staving off a U.S. military response.” This stage of Syrian Civil War reflects the joining of actions of withstanding dominant powers against the common threat that is the application of chemical weapon. At the same time, these countries realize more open conflicts between one another that make the proxy character of the Syrian Civil War more evident. The active involvement of numerus states which support various parties of the conflict reflects the notion that the modern world is multipolar rather than bipolar.
The direct threat to people and resources forces the application of more sharp actions against the subject of danger. In 2014, “Al Qaeda formally disavowed the Islamic State” (ISIL/ISIS) which later proclaimed the establishment of independent caliphate on the territories of Syria and Iraq. This political change and raise of threat to American military personnel located in Iraq resulted in American airstrikes on territories of the caliphate and nearby. In addition, the USA joined its actions with local Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) for improvement of efficiency of anti-IS campaign. The cooperation of American and local forces and further escalation of the conflict reflect intents of one of dominant actors to increase its power in the conflict for better protection of its people, technique, facilities, and established status.
In the balance of power theory, splitting loss of power increases the desire to apply sharper actions for its return. In 2015, the Syrian government faced significant territorial losses, namely northwestern Syria was occupied by the opposition, central Homos province was seized by ISIS, and the territory along the Turkish border was taken by Kurds. American government provided the training of local forces for further establishment of peace in the region and protection of the current boarders. In summer of the same year, Russia combatted military forces and started airstrikes. However, Russia and the USA established safety-of-flight protocol later that was an assurance of peace between the two countries in the air. In 2015, Russian tensions aggravated due to the raised concerns of losing it positions (and the ones of the Syrian government guaranteed by Russia) and decreasing its influence.
Notwithstanding of the entering to these agreements, the military battles and air strikes between various parties of the conflict still take place on the Syrian territory.
Similar Case in the World History
The similar case that reflects the desire of dominant states to balance distribution of powers in the world is the Iraq crisis. During the Iraq crisis, Russia addresses the serious concerns caused by the declaration of the US President to remove Saddam Hussein for addressing the threats of American national security as well as to increase its power in the region.
Russia stood in opposition to the US and UN line of sanctions against Iraq as it clearly understood the growing threat of the alliance of such great powers of the US and UN: “Putin has brought up his warnings against intervention in Libya and Iraq as a way to defend his positions on Syria.” The conflict was escalated by the refusal of Russia to support the US-UN intents and even close cooperation with Iraq military forces during and after the war. For example, it has passed the U.S. military plans and assisted in dispersion of Hussein’s weapon after the war for hiding its involvement. Therefore, the desire of the countries to be secured ensured holding of the balance of power. Their influence in the world resulted in the increasing of military confrontation as they stood in different sides of trench.
The current paper proves that the balance of power theory can explain the escalation of the conflict in the Syrian Civil War by the desire of states to guarantee their security and increase their power in the world political arena. The discussed research was analyzed by using realist theoretical concept and defense theory. In contrast to this concept, constructivists cannot provide a clear explanation of the reasons for the countries located far from Syria to be highly involved in this conflict and substantiate the differences in behavior of neighboring states. Contrary to realists, Neo-Marxists do not elucidate why Russia and the USA are involved in the Syrian Civil War. Thus, realism is considered the most suitable concept for the analysis of the stated research question. This conceptual framework explains that the desires of the countries to ensure their security and hold the existing balance of political powers result in the raise of new military battles. Notably, these conflicts reflect the multipolarity in the modern world, as the policies of weaker states do not align with the policies of the dominant ones as proved by the theory of realism. The former intend to assure their protection from the latter by preventing the concentration of power in one hand strengthening their positions.